Marlen Esparza disrobed
How did you start boxing?
ME: I was always a daddy's girl (still am), and my dad was a huge boxing fan, so I watched it with him. I thought that's what everybody did. I thought boxing was part of life, like eating and sleeping. My dad wanted my brothers to box, so he took them to gyms, and I went along. "Can I try?" "No, you're a girl. You can't do this." I didn't understand. Then when I was 11, my older brothers decided they didn't want to box, so I told my dad, "I'll go and babysit my little brother, but you've got to let me box." Boom. That was my chance. And I never stopped.
What was it like getting hit for the first time?
ME: The first time I got hit, it wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I expected it to be like on TV -- they get hit and just keep going because they know what they're doing. (Like now when I get hit, I don't even notice.) So I thought that's how it was going to be. But when I got hit, I totally froze up and my body went into "fight or flight" mode, "WAIT! You're not supposed to be doing this!" I couldn't control my reactions. I remember freezing up and thinking immediately, this is not what I thought it was going to be like. I remember I would close my eyes a lot when I first started or be scared of the punch before it came.
What do you like about your body?
ME: I don't like too much, but I wouldn't change anything by plastic surgery. Girls want breast implants or butt implants so they can look like Kim Kardashian, and I'm against that. We should let girls feel pretty no matter what they look like. But I like that I have long legs. I have a nice, toned back. My stomach is flat. But nothing's my favorite. I think all-around, I'm average.
If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
ME: My waist is wide, so I'd want it thinner, and my ribs are big, so I'd want a smaller torso. There are 15 women's weight classes, but only three in the Olympics, so I used to fight at 106 pounds, but I had to fight for the 112-pound spot on the Olympic team. I fought girls coming down from 125 pounds who were bigger than me. I had to do a lot of strength training and change my diet to gain muscle as fast as I could. Now, I'm thicker all the way around, and my back, arms and legs have all gotten bigger. I was scared at first. "Oh my gosh, I'm going to look like a boy." People already thought of me as masculine. But I get a lot of people telling me I look athletic, and I'd rather people see me as an athlete than a skinny girl who plays sports.
What's the most unusual thing you do to train?
ME: I use a Hypoxi machine. It simulates high altitude and makes your red blood cells reproduce more quickly. You put it on as a mask and work out with it. I do sprints or hit a bag, six minutes on, four minutes off, for an hour. Then you stop about 10 days before competition, and you have a crazy amount of energy because your blood cells are reproducing, but you're not at high altitude.
What is your biggest body challenge?
ME: I have a flat stomach and strong core, but I can never get abs. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I have bad eating habits when I'm not dieting. Maybe it's because I'm Mexican, and we don't get muscle like everyone else.
What are those bad habits?
ME: As a boxer, you're always on a diet, you have to make weight, so when you're free to eat, you eat excessively because you know you won't be able to later. I do that sometimes during my week off. I'm obsessed with hot fudge brownies with ice cream -- that's my favorite. And hot Cheetos, the Flamin' Hot kind. Sometimes I dip the Cheetos in the ice cream. It sounds bad, but it's so good. But I pay for it later. My arms and legs never get big, but my face gets fat and I have puffy cheeks. And I'll grow a butt, which I love, but as soon as I make weight, it's gone.
What would you define as your edge, mentally?
ME: I believe in my mind that I'm the best. I genuinely believe I'm better than the person next to me. I'm more capable. I can go further. I can surpass them.
Where did the confidence come from?
ME: I always wanted to make something of myself. I was always determined. I didn't know the how or what or where I was going, but I knew something inside me was different. When I first started boxing at 11, people didn't want me in the gym. I think they thought it was disrespectful that I thought I was capable of doing what they were doing. I was put down a lot, insulted a lot; one guy even asked what I was doing because I was just going to get pregnant. At a team fight, guys would cheer for each other, but when I fought, everyone quieted down. It sucked, but if you want something badly, you suck it up. When I won my seventh nationals, I got booed. People are tired of seeing me win. They're over it. No one wants to see someone on top forever. But all of that made me stronger.
How do you prepare to fight?
ME: I visualize the fight over and over. I imagine my opponent, what she's throwing, what I throw back. Sometimes I win; sometimes I lose. Sometimes I do well; sometimes it's close. I imagine every scenario I can think of, so when I get in the ring, I've already done it. Your mind can't tell the difference between imagination and reality, so if I pretend I'm there, once I get in the ring, it's not as intimidating. Three weeks before a fight, I visualize myself losing so I see what could go wrong. But a week out, I've crossed that bridge. All I'm thinking is everything will go right.
What's your routine before a fight?
ME: I take a nap. Then I watch a fight, Aaron Pryor or Sugar Ray Leonard or something. If I see Sugar Ray Leonard throwing crazy, cool combinations, I feel like I can. I meditate. I pray. Then I get ready like I'm going on a date. It takes me about an hour. I take a long shower -- not too warm because I don't want my muscles too loose. I shave, lotion, perfume, makeup (everything but mascara -- it burns when you sweat). I coordinate my outfit, so if I'm in the red corner, I wear red socks and red underwear. I get my hair done. I used to do cornrows, but now I do French braids. I have my rosary, pray one more time and leave my Bible on the bed so it's the first thing I see when I get back. Then I listen to music and zone out. I'm already intense, so I don't need music to amp me up. I listen to a lot of Christian music and try to keep myself serene and peaceful.
What's the worst thing your body has been through?
ME: Losing weight. Sometimes my body gets stuck at 114 or 115 pounds. I eat lightly and work out, but I won't drop. Then I have to use tricks to dehydrate myself, such as a scalding hot bath with Epsom salts. Your skin is burning, and all you can think about is getting out, but it makes you drop a pound in 10 minutes. You're hungry and thirsty and tired, but you have to work out and train. You have to keep mentally strong while putting your body through a lot. That's the hardest thing.
What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train any further?
ME: If I stop, I'm going to feel worse, not better. The only thing worse than to keep going when you're tired is the disappointment if you stop. For me, disappointment in myself is 10 times worse than any physical pain.